Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Descendants (****, 2011)

“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation. We’re all just out here, sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we are immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful?  Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years.  For the last 23 days I’ve living in a paradise of IV’s and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise?  Paradise can go f*** itself.” ~ Matt King, The Descendants

One of the most valuable experiences a film can give the viewer is a sense of shared humanity with the characters on screen.  At first, The Descendants, whose main character is a lawyer about to become very rich from the sale of inherited beach-front property in Hawaii, seems an unlikely film in which to find such a connection.  As the meme goes, what could it have to tell but first-world problems.  Moreover, our protagonist is played by George Clooney, a charming and charismatic actor who can be very entertaining–but rarely convincing as “one of us.”  The Descendants, and Clooney’s, great success involves stripping back the veneer of wealth and screen-star artifice and telling a bracingly human story about death and the unsettling disclosures which sometimes surface in its wake.

As the film opens, we learn from the opening narration that Clooney’s wife is comatose from a boating accident.  We learn, along with his character, that her condition will not improve and that she will soon be taken off life support in accordance with her will.  The rest of the film concerns the fallout from this, and one other, revelation.  Clooney’s character–a serious man, it would seem–gathers his two daughters (one 10, one 17) on a Hawaiian island hopping trip in order to come to terms with this revelation, in search of whatever peace might be there.

The strength of the story is in the telling:  the script contains recognizably human characters who act unpredictably and without falling into pre-determined categories like “good” and “bad”–even the apparently dumb beach-bum teenager has some meaningful contributions.  There is also much to recommend the acting.  Clooney shows again that he’s not locked into that Tom Cruise-ian leading man role where he can get by with just a swagger and a smile; and Shailene Woodley, the twenty-year old actress playing his oldest daughter, particularly shines as an unlikely but supportive companion during a time of soul-piercing crisis.

This movie was very meaningful to me personally.  At a time when I am tempted to blacklist people who have hurt me through their sins, along comes a film displaying the irreducible humanity of similar sinners.  Like Clooney’s character, I find myself prompted to examine my complicity in the brokenness of my relationships with others, to forgive because I can see myself in them–and to forgive just because.   The Descendants seems to be making a heartfelt case that in death, as in life, we’re all the same.

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Fast Five (*** 1/2)

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Film watching is not a science.  It’s all about preference, taste and the subjectivity of the moment.  One person’s Citizen Kane is another’s, to quote South Park, “gay cowboys eating pudding.”  When Avatar came out, it almost became a mark of middlebrow sophistication to turn one’s nose up at all the lavish spectacle while name-checking Dances With WolvesFerngully and The Smurfs, as if what constituted the essence of a good movie was its literary inventiveness.  If you were that person then you may as well not read the rest of this review, because Fast Five, the fifth(!) installment of the The Fast & The Furious drag-racing franchise, is not for you.  On the other hand, if like me it didn’t matter to you that Avatar was Dances With Smurfs, but instead that it was the best damn Dances With Smurfs that could conceivably be made, then read on.

Fast Five stars yet another team-up of original franchise stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, adding Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and bringing back a handful of supporting actors from previous sequels including Tyrese “Decepticonsbane” Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges.  Yes:  it’s another dumb, loud movie about fast cars, sexy women and the criminal underworld.  It’s also probably the best damn movie that could conceivably be made given the subject matter.

The film begins with a ludicrous (note the spelling) prison break which requires the principal characters to flee the United States and take up in the non-extradition country of Brazil.  Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) have been cropping up in various films ever since City of God broadcast their stunning ramshackle architecture and potent mix of poverty and crime to discerning moviegoers a decade ago.  Fast uses the setting to similar effect, though you will not find any keen sociological details or sensitivity outside of a brief history lesson from the villain.  No, this is a film with the single-minded drive of Ricky Bobby:  it wants to go fast.

Dwayne Johnson plays a federal agent hunting down the fugitives from justice, who are in turn concerned with sticking it to a crime lord of the type who shows up in movies like this to be rich, evil and the target of vengeance.  These criss-crossing conflicts keep the proceedings at least somewhat interesting and offer up mild surprises, eventually employing the virtuoso driving skills of the main characters in what amounts to an elaborate bank heist.  Think The Italian Job, but with awesome cars.  I won’t give away the ensuing climax except to say that they found a way to do something crazy, macho and exciting–and something that I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like it before.

At the end of the day, Fast Five delivers on the essence of the action genre:  thrilling action set-pieces populated by rugged but human leads.  In a time where it takes a naturally-gifted action director like James Cameron nearly $300 million to bridge the uncanny valley and make a convincing digital action film, director Justin Lin and crew have delivered an old-fashioned, thrill-a-minute action flick with plenty of cars, guns and big booms.  Rent it.  Have fun.

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The Cabin in the Woods (*** 1/2)

Wait–what?

A blonde, a redhead, a stoner, a jock and a nerd drive an RV to an aged and rustic cabin in the woods.  In order to find it they have to stop for directions at a decrepit country gas station where a sleazy bumpkin gives them directions–and a warning.  Upon their arrival, the cabin just seems like an out of the way place to party, but soon dark happenings make it clear they will have to fight for their lives.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because Joss Whedon and Drew Stoddard’s The Cabin in the Woods self-consciously mimics (and contorts, cross-pollinates and combusts) established horror tropes such that the film is more so about a genre exercise than sexed-up coeds getting axed in the wilderness.  As the kids say these days, “It’s so meta.”  Fortunately, like Scream before it, its narrative glibness mostly works and to thrilling effect.  And while it doesn’t have the crowd-pleasing, chummy goofiness of Edgar Wright’s hits (Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), anyone ready for grisly scares and unexpected plot turns will have a blast.

Even those who haven’t seen the twist-suggesting trailer will know from the opening scene that this movie isn’t just about a cabin in the woods.  Two white-suited technicians (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins!) chat up mundane domestic issues while riding a golf cart through an unspecified facility, occasionally dropping hints that they will be involved in shaping the fates of the primary cast.  The way the title reveal is coupled with this scene is one of the film’s best laugh-out-loud moments, a description which sounds like but certainly isn’t intended to be condemnation by faint praise.

We’re then summarily introduced to our chopping-block collegiates as they prepare for their weekend getaway.  Thor’s Chris Hemsworth is the jock and ringleader, Whedon-veteran Fran Kranz (Topher from Dollhouse) his snarky pothead foil with a ridiculous and creative bong and Anna Hutchinson as Hemsworth’s horny fake-blonde girlfriend.  The other leads are Kristen Connolly, whom the film casually and quickly sexualizes, in the ingenue survivalist role and Jesse Williams as the hunky “nerd” the other couple attempts to set her up with.  The first half of the film entails their getting to the cabin and the gruesome details of what happens there, intercut with more and more information about the people pulling the strings.

And then… well, if you feel underserved by the first half of the movie, just wait for the third act.  Imagine Whedon’s multi-monster hellmouth scenario from Buffy as an explosive pandora’s box of table-turning, stakes-raising chaos condensed into a literal hell of a finale.  The payoffs are wild, bloody and exciting, even as the film continues to reveal the layers of danger at hand.  If certain sections of the film’s beginning feel perfunctory in their genre-mimicry, nothing does about the way things end.  Horror aficionados will be thrilled, if not truly horrified, as will anyone ready and willing to stomach this bloody-slick, extra-clever cut of entertainment.

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Submarine (***, 2010)

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Submarine is a melancholic teenage romance about an alienated Welsh teen named Oliver Tate and his disarmingly human relationship with a girl named Jordana.  Its self-conscious framing (like title cards announcing the different parts of the film) and gently plaintive acoustic soundtrack recall Wes Anderson, but nothing here is so obviously stylized.  It’s a difficult film, at times, for the occasionally frustrating blankness of the protagonist; its strength however lies in actually getting you to care about what’s going on underneath the surface.  Hence “submarine”:  as the boy says at one point, “We’re all traveling under the radar, undetected and no one can do anything about it.”  It’s the half-clever kind of thing bright teenagers tend to pride themselves for having thought of, yet the film makes it authentic to the character and the story he’s telling.

This isn’t a fun film, but it’s deeply funny.  It has some very weird moments, many of which involve a hammy psychic vying for the affections of Oliver’s mom (and serving as a sharp foil to his boring marine biologist father).  Director Richard Ayoade was involved with The Mighty Boosh, so if you have any idea what that is nothing in this film will be all that strange.  It’s certainly no stranger than being a teenage boy, no stranger than all the peculiar vagaries of romance which are so often whitewashed by the movies.

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The Three Musketeers (* 1/2)

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The latest version of French swashbuckling legend The Three Musketeers has plenty of steampunk sound and fury but no genuine thrills to speak of.  Even when airships are flinging cannonballs at each other mid-air, any palpable sense of excitement or danger is missing.  The plot is all palace intrigue involving kings, cardinals and swordsmen, of course, but it’s decidedly ho-hum.  The acting is all surface, no feeling.  I doubt anyone will care for the fate of any character here.  These actors are chess pieces in a grand production, moving along predictable and pre-determined paths, eliciting the same sympathy and commiseration as pawns.

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